Features

A Future On Mars Part Two

Words by: Trilokesh Chanmugam


This is the second installment of a two-part piece. To read the first, click here.

Sometime around 80,000 years ago during an era known as “the great migration,” early humans set out from Africa and gradually conquered the world. Archaeologists can only speculate about the motives behind this exodus; massive drought may have threatened their existence, improved nutrition or genetic mutation might have created an instinctual desire to explore, or weather conditions might have lowered sea levels and opened land bridges. Whatever the case, the history of humanity ever since has been a series of defining moments in exploration. The age of discovery began a period of European colonial expansion in the 15th century; the 17th century saw “the unknown southern lands” get charted and eventually settled by European sailors; and in the early 20th century adventurers such as Robert Scott and Roald Amundsen first set foot on Antarctic ice. These explorers were driven by a range of reasons: land, money, politics, fame; but often it was far more simple than that.

People push the limits of how far they can go just to see if they can. We want to understand our surroundings, and that involves getting there, regardless of the risk.

The mid 20th century saw the world turn its collective attention skyward as the USA/USSR space race began, culminating in spaceflight Apollo 11 which landed Americans Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the surface of the moon in 1969. The USA sent a few subsequent crewed missions to the moon, but Apollo 17 saw 1972 as the last year that humans have ever left low-earth orbit.

Whatever happened to human exploration? We haven’t seen humans go any place significantly new in the last 40 years, but that’s not because our exploratory instinct has died. It’s largely the result of technological developments in the field of robotics which have enabled us to explore outward without serious risk to human life, but it’s also partly because government space agencies have been financially crippled now that there is no political motive for investing in them. “What kills space agencies is government’s backing down. What kills space agencies is when it stops being sexy.” Mars One final round candidate Josh Richards reckons that when the world sees people living on Mars, that all this will change, but he also thinks that private space enterprise is more capable than any government agency of actually making that first leap.

When NASA estimated the cost of a crewed mission to Mars back in the 90’s, they drew up a figure of $450bn; a number so ludicrous that the idea was immediately shelved. The vast majority of this estimate was the result of taking into consideration the cost of research and development in technology for the return flight. Two decades later, it’s still no small feat to land something on Mars and, up until now, the only objects successfully deployed onto the surface of the planet have been relatively small rovers. Due to the thin atmosphere, slowing down a payload for a soft landing on Mars is very difficult using parachutes alone, so NASA’s ‘Curiosity  and ‘Opportunity’ rovers used innovative methods such as inflatable airbags which made the payload bounce as it landed, or a detachable ‘skycrane’ which set it down gently before shooting off to crash at a safe distance. They were enormous feats of engineering and their successful deployment was cause for great celebration among everybody involved with the projects. With this in mind, it’s understandable that a return flight from Mars is out of the question – deploying something on Mars which is large enough to launch back is far beyond our current capabilities.

Mars One is the brainchild of Dutchman Bas Lansdorp. Although scientists have long known that a one way trip to Mars is theoretically feasible, Lansdorp brought a new idea to the table – a successful prediction that there was a vast population of people who were willing and eager to sign up for the trip. Lansdorp’s background is in mechanical engineering and entrepreneurship; he is the founder of renewable energy company Ampyx power. As the CEO of Mars One though, his contribution to Mars exploration has not been on the technical side of things. He has focused on overcoming the challenges to the business model and coordinating the company’s public relations so, for this reason, he has been met with considerable suspicion.

His company is a private space enterprise, and therefore relies on a suitable funding model to acquire the estimated cost of $6bn for their mission. At the moment, they’ve got almost no money, but Lansdorp’s financial plan is twofold: to create a media frenzy over the event to drive merchandise sales or attract private investors, and to land a reality TV deal to cover the remainder (the majority) of the estimate. Both aspects of this plan require a great deal of public support, but a simple google search will reveal that it’s not going so well.

Start at the comments section of any internet forum which features the story (always a good place to gauge how receptive or hostile a target audience is). In March, the Guardian ran a story by Andrew Smith called “Can Mars One Colonise the Red Planet? The article was optimistic on balance, but the reader’s reactions were characterized by the following upvoted comment: “More about this bollocks? They must have a great PR department…”

This kind of response is nothing new. In 2012, a reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything) interview with Bas Lansdorp went horribly wrong as reddit users downvoted all his comments and labelled him a dreamer, a scam-artist, and a fraud. The comments in response to updates on the Mars One Facebook page are generally along the lines of “when will you show us some rocket designs?”, indicating that their ‘fanbase’ is tired of the somewhat vapid infographics which are characteristic of Mars One’s strategy for pitching their plan to the public. People want to see specifics and, up until recently, this kind of detailed information has been almost completely withheld, suggesting that it doesn’t actually exist. In fact, much of the available scientific information has come up contrary to Mars One’s proposed timeline (which has been delayed twice) and cost estimates. The first detailed feasibility report, published by MIT, promised doom for the first batch of astronauts after 68 days due to oxygen deficiency and, in another blow to Mars One’s credibility, Joseph Roche, a third round candidate, defected from the Mars 100 and publicly stated that he did not believe Mars One had the scientific know-how to get the job done.

Josh Richards is not blind to the nay-sayers perspective. “I always get the critics,” he grumbles humorously when I bring up the MIT report. “Everyone else gets all the nice stuff, and for some reason, globally, I’m the one they come to when they want to hammer it.” He refers to one experience in particular; an encounter with an Australian journalist by the name of Elmo Keep. Toward the end of last year, Keep published a beautifully written, well illustrated article about Mars One on ‘Medium’; an online blog publishing platform. Her article featured Josh front and centre, with a strong implication that he was psychologically unprepared for the mission. This initial article, All Dressed Up For Mars And Nowhere To Go was moderately sceptical, but the subsequent articles  she published on ‘Medium’ became gradually more decided about Mars One’s inability to achieve their goals. Her articles have been prominent in shaping public opinion about Mars One and, being curious about how Josh felt about the whole affair, I asked how he remained positive in the face of such criticism.

“The second article, the one that became quite vicious, um, that hurt. That really hurt.”

This is one of the only moments in our conversation that Josh faltered, evidently struggling to find the right balance between telling it as it was and being diplomatic. “I don’t fixate so much on correcting,” he says tactfully, “but people saying it’s impossible shouldn’t get in the way of people who are doing it… I’ll just prove them wrong.”

I’ve got no idea whether Josh is going to be successful, but I know that Mars One is going to need a lot more than optimism to get them where they want to go. The world is hyper-critical about Mars One for a number of good reasons and at the heart of it lies a belief that the Dutch company is simply incapable of achieving their goals. They think that $6bn is a vast underestimation of the costs required to get there and that even if it wasn’t, Mars One is still incapable of finding the money. They think that Mars One is the wrong organization to be doing this because they’re not even a proper aerospace company, and they argue that the Mars 100 is a selection of psychologically unstable dreamers with zero astronaut training. All in all, the general public has responded with a healthy dose of scepticism to a highly speculative scientific endeavour but, somewhere along the line, this scepticism morphed into a much more fanciful accusation – that Mars One is an elaborate hoax for financial gain. According to a number of onlookers, Bas Lansdorp is a con-artist who exploits the world’s fascination with space and manipulates the Mars 100 for his own ends. Josh also attributes this idea to the writings of Elmo Keep. “The tone of her next three articles basically switched from ‘aww, I’m not sure about this’, to ‘Mars One is manipulating these naive idiots’ and ‘Mars One is essentially a scam.’”

Reasons for this particular breed of criticism vary, ranging from accusations of falsified data about the number of initial applicants, to claims that candidate selection was based on financial contributions, or that Mars One’s PR strategy of coaching final round candidates in media skills is unethical. Ryan Macdonald, who is another of the third round candidates, recently made a YouTube video in an attempt to debunk the Mars One scam accusations, but since he has a vested interest, the video was naturally met with suspicion.

Mars One still needs money and, once that hurdle is behind them, they need to overcome a nearly insurmountable number of logistical challenges. Despite this fact, Josh believes that Mars One is ahead of the game when it comes to the toughest aspect of the mission: choosing the right people. “The biggest thing I suppose is commitment,” he says, “sticking with it.” One person has already dropped out of the Mars 100 and, when the isolation training begins and the media coverage intensifies, they’re bound to lose even more. Choosing six groups of four people who are sane enough, and get along well enough to survive an eternity in space is going to be a real challenge, but Mars One is closer to seeing this happen than anyone else before them.

On the third of July, Mars One announced the conceptual designs for their ‘Environmental Control and Life Support Systems’ (ECLSS), conducted by Paragon Space Development Corporation. Paragon had been contracted by Mars One to compile the independent report and its findings indicated that, contrary to the MIT report, the Mars habitat will be capable of supporting the settlers indefinitely. The major difference is that the Paragon systems rely heavily on ‘in-situ resource utilization’(recycling waste and using resources found naturally on Mars), while the MIT report assumed that the colony would be more reliant on supplies from Earth. It’s too early to say whether this report will be enough to sway public opinion about Mars One but, in contrast to their usual announcements, it’s certainly a step in the right direction.

**

What’s the long game on Mars? Josh is preparing to say goodbye to Earth and live on another planet with only three other people, so he must have some kind of picture in his mind about what the future will look like. I ask him about it: if Mars One aims to set up humanity as a multi-planetary species, are they also interested in terraforming? (Terraforming is the highly theoretical science about transforming the surface of a planet to make it suitable for life.) He replies with the very clear answer that “Mars One is not interested in terraforming at all,” and that I should probably rephrase the first part of my question to say that “all Mars One is concerned about is the permanent colonisation of Mars”. This sounds like his media training shining through, so I push the question further. “Is terraforming something that interests you personally?” Again, he comes back with a pretty resounding “No,” and I admit that his answer surprises me. Josh wants to spend the rest of his life on Mars, but he’s not interested in making the place more welcoming for humans to live on naturally. How big can the Mars colony get if they are all going to be living underground and surviving off oxygen from plants grown inside greenhouses? (Note: Mars One has strict rules about populating the planet; no babies are to be born on Mars, all new members of the colony will come from Earth.)

Josh never read a science fiction book until he was in his mid twenties, but he uses Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy to explain himself. The characters in the book are divided by ideology; one half considers themselves ‘greens’, the other half ‘reds.’ “The greens are people that want to terraform, and the reds want to keep Mars the way it is, to study its geology,” Josh explains. “I fall fairly firmly within the red camp,” he says. Here on earth, Antarctica is a similar analogy: “people want to drill for oil in Antarctica, but there’s so much science study that we can use to discover more about our planet by keeping Antarctica pristine.” He reveals that some of the Mars One candidates are interested in the concept of terraforming, but for him personally, it’s about taking one step at a time. “Let’s just get people there, and lets study Mars as best we can. Mars One is controversial enough.” In light of this, Bas Lansdorp will be working alongside the ICSU’s panel for planetary protection to ensure that the Martian environment does not get contaminated by their mission.

“I want us to be a stepping stone,” Josh answers when asked why he gets excited by the prospect of living on Mars. “Kids who are born now, when they’re 12 years old, will be able to have someone take them out for an astronomy night, point out a star in the sky and tell them that there’s people living there.” He finds the idea endlessly alluring and, as he speaks I realise that I do as well. “I would love some of those 12 year old kids to become 25 year old aeronautical engineers, who build the spacecraft that will go further, that will go to the moons of Jupiter, or will work out the physics of interstellar drives.”  For Josh it’s not just about the fourth rock from the Sun, nor has it ever been. It’s about the next frontier after Mars, and the one after that. He thinks it’s about time that humanity’s collective attention faced outward for the first time since the moon landing. “I want it to be easier so that the folks who come behind have an easier time when they go further.”

Josh Richards has got a radical vision of the future and our place in the cosmos. He insists that his ideas are grounded in very real possibilities, but he’s a dreamer; although that’s not a bad thing. We need scientists with imagination like his here on Earth, but his leaving will be a good thing. He can accomplish more on Mars than he will ever be able to on this planet. I believe this sincerely, but I also worry for him, and I realise it’s because he’s placing a huge amount of trust in a company that is encountering problems even before their mission has begun. When asked whether he was sure that Bas Lansdorp is the best man to be following, he shot back with “he’s the only game in town for someone like me”. Working for a government space agency is not an option for Josh because of his Australian citizenship, but I’m still surprised by the level of trust he has in Mars One. He’s reassured by the fact that although Lansdorp is the face of the organisation, there will be many other people working behind it. They will hire 24 astronauts who are going to personally work toward getting the mission off the ground; testing life support systems, working with contractors, and developing designs in much the same way that NASA astronauts do. “So it’s not really that different,” Josh claims. “It just so happens that the CEO, the face of the organisation, is a weirdly speaking Dutch dude.”

At this, he lets loose with one of his classic bouts of barking laughter and, not for the first time, I wonder how he will manage out there, up in space. Will he be able to cope without an audience for his jokes? Will the fulfillment of a dream keep him going or will he fall prey to crippling loneliness and depression? I can’t tell, and we might never find out, but I’m cheering for Mars One. I’m cheering for Josh Richards.